Couple in ad campaign left ‘shaking and fearful’ after online abuse

‘We actually thank Gemma O’Doherty for highlighting there is no real hate-crime legislation’

Fiona Ryan with Jon Mathis, who experienced online abuse after featuring in an ad campaign for the Lidl supermarket chain. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw for The Irish Times

Fiona Ryan with Jon Mathis, who experienced online abuse after featuring in an ad campaign for the Lidl supermarket chain. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw for The Irish Times

 

A mixed-race Co Meath couple say they may leave Ireland after being subjected to abuse online following their participation in an advertising campaign.

They say gardaí are not taking their fears for their safety seriously and the Government is “100 per cent accountable” due to its failure to enact robust hate-crime legislation.

Fiona Ryan (33), her fiance Jonathan Mathis (32) and their 22-month-old son feature in a television and billboard campaign for supermarket chain Lidl. The billboard ad featuring their photograph began appearing in early September.

On September 7th, former newspaper journalist Gemma O’Doherty tweeted the ad, commenting: “German dump @lidl_ireland gaslighting the Irish people with their multicultural version of ‘The Ryans’. Kidding no-one! Resist the Great Replacement wherever you can by giving this kip a wide berth. #ShopIrish #BuyIrish.”

Several people replied to the tweet with derogatory comments about the family. One person said the ad promoted “race/ancestor betrayal” and criticised social welfare spending on immigrants, while another compared the “IQ of central Africans [with] the IQ of mentally disabled”.

One of the Lidl ads featuring Fiona Ryan (33), her fiance Jonathan Mathis (32) and their 22-month-old son.
One of the Lidl ads featuring Fiona Ryan (33), her fiance Jonathan Mathis (32) and their 22-month-old son.

Removed

Twitter later removed Ms O’Doherty’s tweet for violating its standards after Lidl complained to the operators of the social media platform.

Lidl said: “After offensive and racist tweets from Gemma O’Doherty we have decided to block and report her to @Twitter . . . We are contacting the Ryan family regarding this online abuse and will be providing support after this unprovoked attack.”

Ms Ryan, an actor, met Mr Mathis, a construction worker now working as a personal trainer, in London seven years ago. Mr Mathis, originally from Brazil, grew up in Liverpool and the Cotswolds. They returned to Ms Ryan’s family home in October 2018 to save money, and took part in the Lidl campaign to boost their savings.

On Sunday September 8th, Ms Ryan was alerted to the tweet and accompanying comments by the ad agency. “I was shaking. I felt sick to my stomach,” she said. Ms Ryan said she felt she was being “personally” attacked. “It was the first time I had come across racism personally.”

Mr Mathis had experienced racism all his life and was less shocked. His earliest memory was from when he was “three or four” in school, being called “a n****r”.

“My initial reaction was anger and hurt,” he said. “But I was not as fearful for my safety the way Fi was.”

Civil matter

A day later, Ms Ryan called the Garda to report the incident but was told it was a civil matter. “I felt that wasn’t right . . . that our family wasn’t safe, so I began researching.” She screen-grabbed and saved the original tweet and the most racially offensive comments underneath it.

“Reading them really affected me,” she said. “I was never aware people who could look at us negatively.” They cancelled a family trip to Culture Nightbecause of anxiety over the possibility of being recognised by those who had such negative views.

Shane O’Curry, director of the European Network Against Racism Ireland (ENAR-I), told them they could report hate speech under the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act 1989. There have been fewer than 10 convictions under the law, however, and it has been “under review” since 2000.

Ms Ryan subsequently reported the matter to the Garda but it had not yet been assigned an investigating officer. “There seems to be a lack of understanding in the police about how serious this is, or how to deal with vulnerable people in these situations,” she said.

The couple said they bore no malice towards Ms O’Doherty. “We actually thank her for highlighting there is no real hate-crime legislation. We feel it’s our duty now to do something about this.”

They also want tougher regulation of social media platforms.

ENAR-I said the 30-year-old hate-crime legislation was “wholly and unacceptably inadequate” and failed to deal with the “serious harm” racism did.

“We see people who stop going out, who leave jobs and schools, stop going to certain places – all because of racist abuse,” said Mr O’Curry.

Threatening

Ms O’Doherty did not respond to requests by phone, text and direct message from The Irish Times. Having been contacted, however, she addressed an email to Ms Ryan threatening legal action.

“The Irish Times have been in touch with me regarding outrageous and false allegations you have made about me to them. Please be assured it is my intention to take you to court as a result and if those false claims you make about me are put into the public domain by The Irish Times, you are exposing yourself to grave financial risk,” she said.

A spokesman for the Garda said it could not comment on an individual case.

The Department of Justice said it was “mindful of the fact” that legislation on hate speech was now 30 years old, and it would “shortly be announcing a public consultation process” to gather views on how to improve the law.

A spokeswoman for Twitter said: “We take robust enforcement action when behaviour violates our abusive behaviour and hateful conduct policies.”